Adam Hofmeister takes a personal look at the bizarre yet poignant world of Netflix cartoon BoJack Horseman, and what it has to say to those who may find themselves wandering into it.
“You know, sometimes I feel like I was born with a leak, and any goodness I started with just slowly spilled out of me, and now it’s all gone. And I’ll never get it back in me. It’s too late. Life is a series of closing doors, isn’t it?”
– BoJack Horseman, Horse Majeure
“You were born broken; that’s your birthright. And now you can fill your life with projects, your books and your movies and your little girlfriends but it won’t make you whole. You’re BoJack Horseman. There’s no cure for that.”
– Beatrice Horseman, Brand New Couch
If I said to you – yes, you – that there was a show that dealt with the realities of depression, the vacuum of modern disposable society and it was told through the eyes of a washed-up sitcom actor, I’m pretty sure that you – yes, you – would say that sounds pretty hard hitting, but possibly very watchable. Then if I told you the main character was an alcoholic horse, you’d probably think that I was full of shit and had dreamed it up whilst drunk.
Well, that show exists. It’s called BoJack Horseman, and it is excellent. This came as a shock to me, as when it first arrived I expected it to be another Seth McFarlane-style animated sitcom about a popular culture referencing animal. But thankfully, despite its surreal embrace of anthropomorphism and heavy visual gags, there is enough substance and character development to silence accusations of laziness and distance it from what is usually a very tired premise.
BoJack (voiced with perfect jaded gravel by Will Arnett) is a relic from a 80s sitcom called Horsin’ Around in the vein of mawkish shows such as Full House. He has spent his post-fame years drinking and banging his way into such a state of self-loathing that the only people who will hang out with him are his agent, Princess Carolyn (a fiery Amy Sedaris), and a squatter called Todd (voiced with great warmth by Breaking Bad’s Aaron Paul).
He is angry, selfish, petty, cowardly, and stuck in an arrested development from when he was a celebrity, unable to fathom that his actions actually have consequences and that the show that made him famous wasn’t the great cultural milestone he thought it was. The title sequence sums up his life: an endless, vapid routine, the bright miasma of Los Angeles clouding his mind whilst he slowly sinks further and further away.
The Hollywood (well, Hollywoo in this case) has-been is not a new trope; the recent David Cronenberg film Maps to the Stars probably took the satire to its most extreme conclusion, in which painted idols and irredeemable charlatans drink and scream and incest-fuck their way through a world of new-age emptiness and industry backbiting. There are no happy endings, no underdog getting back into the spotlight victories. It is an unbearably bleak portrait of greed and ego. Thankfully BoJack Horseman is not Maps to the Stars, because that means we actually get to laugh and not cry in the shower for hours on end.
Admittedly, the reason BoJack is so engrossing is because it takes a very personal look at unhappiness, though not particularly on the institutional unhappiness that movies like Maps, or Robert Altman’s The Player focus on. Of course, those are important, but I prefer my emotional bludgeoning to have a personal touch.
Because the BoJack premise is so absurd, it allows the writers to make the characters more human in contrast to their animal forms, which means we get the wonderful comedic balance of seeing a horse argue with a literal navy seal (Neal McBeal) whilst at the same time trying – and failing horribly – to make amends with a dying friend whom he betrayed two decades before. And in a clever twist, the human drama is left to the animals, and the sitcom wackiness to the humans, e.g. Todd goes to prison and courts two gangs/opens his own theme park/ becomes a counsellor to characters from The Bling Ring, etc.
Contrast this to the characters on Family Guy who are simply exaggerated television tropes. Whenever they attempt to give depth to their characters it feels entirely hollow; you know that absolutely nothing said or done will stick in future episodes. I didn’t care when Brian Griffin died because I knew it wasn’t going to be a permanent fixture, and I had no attachment to him to begin with. The same problem applies to unrelatable superhero movies with unbeatable gods, billionaires, and L. Jacksons…but I digress.
The first season covers BoJack attempting to write his memoirs so he can get back into the public eye, with the help of ghost-writer Diane Nguyen (Alison Brie). His motivation seems to be trying to get people to like him despite him not doing anything to earn their admiration or trust. We, as well as Diane, want to believe that the arrogant ass we’re seeing destroy his own life has something softer underneath.
But the problem with hating yourself is that it makes it harder to love others. He lures Princess Carolyn into relationships when he’s suffered a defeat only to throw her aside when his ego takes him elsewhere. He sabotages a wedding because he sees himself as “saving” someone, when really it’s all about what he wants. And to the show’s credit, they don’t take the easy route of just making Diane an object for BoJack. Her own needs and wants far outweigh any schmooze BoJack lays down on her.
The show’s depiction of dysfunctional relationships and unrequited love is refreshing (in an obviously depressing way). Diane and Mr Peanutbutter’s (Paul F. Tomkins) relationship has its ups and downs, but one fight isn’t enough to drive her into BoJack’s arms. BoJack only wants Diane because she pays attention to him, and because she’s conveniently there. But his selfish longing for approval spurs him on to hit on her, try to crash her wedding, and fire her for writing accurately about him. He isolates everyone, and in the penultimate episode of Season One, realising this, we are given one of the most heart-breaking pleas for help ever shown on television:
It’s a moment of purest desperation, in which a man (well, horseman) who has spent his entire life in a drugged up state of self-loathing and bitterness asks the person he trusts most to tell him he’s worth something, that he can be saved from himself…and she doesn’t say a damn word.
I can’t overemphasise how much that scene hit me the first time I saw it. BoJack has been down so long that he’s written his own future. The sadness in all this is that no matter how hard he tries, he can’t fix himself. He will continue to try to be a better person, but his own emotional problems and toxic environment make it a Sisyphean struggle. Even when he leaves, he can’t escape himself. And that is his tragedy.
Does BoJack have any self-control? It doesn’t seem that way. BoJack’s life is a series of, as he puts it, “kicks to the urethra” and his expectation that it’s going to stay horrible affirms it. The negative reinforcement from his mother and father seem to have convinced him that change is impossible. These exaggerated narcissists are clearly funny but in a way that makes you feel bad for laughing at all.
However, the publishing of BoJack’s personal details seems to bring about a second wind, which is what makes the second season so watchable (well, that and watching a not-dead J.D. Salinger sell out and make a tacky, nonsensical gameshow).
It continues with BoJack re-evaluating his life and trying to be nicer to the people he cares about and curb his destructive tendencies. He gets his dream role of Secretariat, he finds love with Wanda (Lisa Kudrow), he starts to treat everyone better…and yet it’s still not enough. Why is it that BoJack cannot find happiness, even when it lands on a plate in front of him?
Objectively speaking, his life is better than most others: financial security, a deal of fame, stalwart companions. The sad truth is that his happiness is mostly out of his control. He is compelled to follow every destructive influence, even it means burning a bridge. He can’t say no, because his life of impulse has trained him to love his unhappiness.
Part of why this struggle is so effective is because we know that his depression and self-hatred is so entrenched that he’s going to screw up his attempts at improvement more often than not. Rather than keeping him the same every episode for a sitcom formula, the series refreshingly attempts to make him try and change…which is surely the goal for every dissatisfied person.
We also have some more daring satire than in the first season, and more focus on Diane, with an episode tackling the way the media reacts to Hollywoo(d) sex scandals: more specifically, the women who bring them to the table. Diane mentions in passing a Bill Cosby-ish scandal relating to a hippo, and is told to drop it by even her most trusted confidantes, as the media tears her apart. And, again, there is no resolution. The accused gets away with it, because people won’t look past his celebrity. It’s a bold move, the kind of downer ending society doesn’t expect, much like the episode of South Park where Wendy, having been ostracised by her peers for not conforming to unrealistic, photoshopped body standards, tearfully gives in and joins the crowd.
Diane’s failed journey to a war zone to shadow an egotistical billionaire (Keegan-Michael Key), leads her into BoJack’s world: a sphere of emptiness, inactivity, self-loathing and cowardice. In Diane, we see the repercussions of failure, and the terrifying prospect of her (i.e. us) ending up like BoJack. What is shocking is how easy it is for her to give up, not just on herself, but on the people she cares about. What happened to Diane could happen to any of us, and is a rebuttal to Beatrice’s claim of being “born broken.”
Obviously this kind of harsh realism is not going to be in every series, in the same way not every NBC show is going to be like Hannibal (we can dream…but also, that would be gross). And there’s nothing wrong with escapism per se, but when the cultural oeuvre of the day is “keep calm and carry on,” there’s no room for people to question consensuses or unconventional emotions. After all, if we live in a world in which Janet Street-Porter can claim depression is a “trendy illness,” we’re selling emotional complexity short. There is no happy/sad dichotomy we’re forced to live by, which maybe is an unintentional critique from BoJack Horseman towards the wider entertainment sphere.
And yet, when I thought all was hopeless and dark, there is a glimmer of hope:
We know that he will continue to stumble, there will be pitfalls, but we know that “the hard part” is the best goal he can aim for. It’s an emotional intelligence that’s rare for traditional television, in which most character arcs can be wrapped up in twenty five minutes, or finales that give everyone a happy send-off, with no indication their lives will continue to be difficult or they will argue, or they will drift, or they will lose someone they care about. Sometimes it’s just about carrying on, a fact that series creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg acknowledges:
“Well, I don’t believe in endings. I think you can fall in love and get married and you can have a wonderful wedding, but then you still have to wake up the next morning and you’re still you. Like, you can have the worst day of your life, but then the next day won’t be the worst day of your life. And I think it works in a positive and a negative, that all these things that happen are moments in time. And that because of the narrative we’ve experienced, we’ve kind of internalized this idea that we’re working toward some great ending, and that if we put all our ducks in a row we’ll be rewarded, and everything will finally make sense. But the answer is that everything doesn’t make sense, at least as far as I’ve found […] It’s a struggle, and we’re all trying to figure it out, and these characters are trying to figure it out for themselves.”
Life is hard. Change is harder. Being confronted with a character with whom we can recognise our own fears and failings – though perhaps some more than others – is important, especially in this day and age. To have a show out there that offers both harsh truth, and hope, is pretty special.
I’m sure there are people out there who enjoy being compared to BoJack, in the same way it was cool to be Bernard Black, but frankly the thought is terrifying to me. Sometimes the most radical thing a story can do is get you to look in the mirror. And BoJack, for me, is one of the most scarily accurate reflections of destruction and mental anguish I’ve seen in fiction.
Or perhaps it’s just a cartoon about a funny horse. Who knows? It’s not Ibsen.
- Adam Hofmeister 06/08/15
 Quote taken from interview with Kwame Opam for The Verge, http://www.theverge.com/2015/7/31/9077245/bojack-horseman-netflix-raphael-bob-waksberg-interview